The Catastrophe of the Emerald Queen, страница 12
“YEE-ES!!” Bue exclaimed triumphantly as the rabbit flew back into the long grass behind it. “Come on, dinner part one” he said grinning and clapping Jared on the shoulder. They ran forward and Bue scanned the foliage. “There,” he said and reached down, pulling the body up by the ears. The rabbit was limp and the shot had been clean. He tossed the carcass to Jared. “Cop hold of that, you can carry.”
Jared flinched as he caught the rabbit and gingerly held it in his hands. Bue reached for a new quarrel and held it between his teeth as he started to recrank his crossbow.
Suddenly an angry voice said quietly, “what do you think you’re doing?”
Jared jumped and dropped the rabbit, Bue had just cranked his bow and he glanced around quickly and then placed the bolt in the firing groove. “Who’s there?” he snapped anxiously, training his crossbow on the nearby trees where the sound seemed to be coming from.
“I said WHAT do you think you’re doing?” the voice asked again angrily.
Bue and Jared frantically glanced around but could see nothing.
“Come out whoever you are,” Bue said turning from left to right with his bow held ready.
“Murdering wretches!” the voice snapped and then a small brown fox stepped clear of a large clump of knobbly yellow plants. Bue looked shocked and Jared stared at it. “You killed him!” the fox said, its tail flicking angrily as it gestured with its head to the body at Jared’s feet.
Before either of them could react there was a loud snarling and two bears stepped out on their hind legs from the trees. As Bue turned the nearest one to him swatted his bow from his hands. He yelped as it was torn from his grasp, the mechanism triggering and the bolt firing off into the depths of the woods. “Killers!” The bear snarled, grabbing Bue around the waist and then throwing him down on the earth floor. The other pushed Jared down who shouted in fear. Both bears put one huge foot on the boys’ chests and looked to the fox. Its face was full of fury and after a pause it said, “bring them.” Practically spitting the words.
“Wh, where are you taking us?” Jared stammered as the bears began to tie their arms and feet with twine from the trees.
“To the conclave,” the fox said, eyeing him furiously. “They will deal with you.”
The bears tied them tightly and Jared winced as the twine was pulled taught on his legs. Bue thrashed and kicked and tried to stand up. The bear holding him growled menacingly and bared its teeth so he reluctantly went still.
Picking them up and flinging them over their huge shoulders the bears moved off after the fox who walked ahead shouting. “Summon the conclave. Murder in our forest! Summon the conclave!”
After a short journey they came into a clearing and the bears dumped them unceremoniously on the floor. Jared groaned as he hit the damp ground and as he squinted in the deepening gloom he saw, before his eyes, the clearing slowly fill with animals of many types. Badgers, otters, birds, foxes, rabbits and even one or two wolves plus a large boar slowly moved into the clearing and sat in a circle around them. Their eyes staring silently at the two boys and their captors.
As the glade filled, the fox who had found them moved to a large rock on one side of the clearing and a badger detached itself from a group of others and moved to join him. They climbed up onto the rock, facing the gathered crowd. Jared strained to see what was happening and could see only what looked like a zoo of different species. His side was wet where he was laying and he wriggled uncomfortably. He whispered to Bue. “What the hell is this? What did you do?”
The bear above him growled so he went quiet.
The buzz of conversation amongst the animals drifted away as the badger raised its paw and there was silence.
“Human trespassers,” the badger said in a loud voice. “Do you know why you are brought before this conclave?”
Bue struggled against his bonds and glared sideways at the fox and badger. “What’s your problem?” he demanded angrily. “We were out hunting. That’s not a crime.”
There was another angry buzz of talk from the animals gathered and Jared whispered urgently. “For God’s sake be quiet. You’re making them angry!”
The badger held up its paw until the silence returned. “It is here. You are beyond your own lands and in our world now. The rabbit you murdered was a father and a husband; you leave his family without him.”
A space cleared slightly to the left of the badger and as the animals rippled apart Bue and Jarred could see other rabbits. A large one and four smaller ones. All were crying quietly.
“You leave this family without its male adult. Kanin was a member of this wood, a loving father and a wise giver of advice to his friends.”
There was another buzz of angry conversation amongst the animals with most of them glaring at Bue and Jared, helpless on the floor. Some were looking at the weeping rabbits and then at the two boys, disgust creasing their faces.
“Do you have anything to say for yourselves?” the fox asked above the murmuring.
Bue wriggled and shouted through the wet grass pressing up against his mouth. “Tell this hulking lump to get its foot off me and I’ll answer you.”
The bear growled quietly but turned to the fox and the badger. The bear slowly removed its huge paw from Bue’s chest and dropped to all fours.
Bue took a deep breath and said angrily. “We were hunting, in my land this is OK provided it’s for food and not just sport. We didn’t know we were in your territory.”
“Ignorance is no excuse,” the badger answered wearily. “Our laws apply to everyone.”
“Secondly,” Bue snapped. “Jared was only helping me. He didn’t kill the rabbit, I did.”
At the mention of the deed the rabbit’s family began to weep even louder and the little ones moved closer to the mother, burying their faces into her fur.
Through the last rays of daylight the badger turned a solemn face to them and said. “You have admitted your actions and the fact that your friend did not pull the trigger is irrelevant. He is your accomplice and as guilty as you.”
There was an approving rumble of conversation from the gathered animals.
The badger turned to the fox and they whispered for a few moments, occasionally glancing over at Jared and Bue. After consulting they turned to the boys, the crowd of animals once more going quiet.
“You are to be taken from here to the borders of our territory and killed,” the badger said slowly and with complete calm.
Jared winced and tried to stand up, the twine around his ankles digging in as he struggled.
There was an approving murmur from the gathered animals.
“Your bodies will be displayed to warn others of the price of killing in our woods.”
The murmur was now louder and one or two animals were loudly shouting.
“Unless of course the widow wishes to show clemency. Kirittita?” the fox turned to the crying rabbit who shook her head and hugged her children tighter.
“Very well, take them to…,” the fox began as the bears moved to pick Bue and Jared up.
“STOP!” A loud voice sounded in the glade.
All heads turned and in the dimming light Jared saw a path form on one side between the animals and slowly another appeared.
It was a large white stag, with huge antlers. The stag picked its way through the path cleared for it and stood in the middle of the clearing next to Jared, Bue and the two bears, facing the fox and badger. It glanced behind at the boys and Jared saw it had brown eyes that looked old and sad.
“Hekima, our old friend,” the badger said surprised. “You are welcome in the conclave.”
“That I may be,” the stag replied, looking around. “However, I see you have passed a death sentence on these two boys. May I ask why?”
There was an excited buzz of chat and the badger replied. “They killed Kanin, leaving his children orphaned and his bride a widow,” the fo
“I see,” the stag replied nodding, “and why did they do that?”
“They were hunting illegally in our sacred woods and slaughtered poor Kanin as he was foraging for food for his wife and children.”
Another murmur and the stag then asked. “So what was their motivation for killing him?”
“They are from Alegria and in that barbaric place the killing of defenceless animals is lawful,” the fox said, his voice cracking with indignation.
Another angry murmur and the boar shouted. “Kill them!” Its tusks waving from side to side as it angrily shook its head.
The stag asked casually. “Hunting for food or for sport?”.
“For food they say, and we have no reason to doubt that. However, as we told them and as this conclave and this wood knows…ignorance is no excuse.”
Another murmur of approval.
“I see,” the stag said nodding. He glanced at Bue, who was glaring at him and then at Jared who was petrified but unable to look away.
“May I ask you both a question?” the stag said to the badger and fox.
The fox hesitated but then said. “But of course Hekima, your wisdom is always welcome.”
“If you kill them, will that bring Kanin back?”
A ripple of confusion and then the fox stammered. “Err…well NO but…”
“So if you kill them what will their deaths achieve?”
“We are going to display their bodies as a lesson to others…”The badger began but Hekima interrupted him.
“You know as well as I do that their bodies will be eaten within a couple of hours by our less enlightened woodland cousins, so I ask you this. As you cannot bring Kanin back and no one from Alegria will learn this lesson you wish to teach…then what purpose will killing these children serve?”
There was a silence in the glade now, the moonlight finally holding sway over the extinguished daylight and everyone’s attention was on the large stag.
The badger stared at him, unable to speak but the fox then found its tongue. “Hekima this conclave’s laws are just and fair. We agreed them ourselves. These boys…”
“Acted in ignorance without malice or evil intent.” Hekima interrupted. “This conclave is young and our laws are not known to all. Their lack of knowledge of our rules is not their fault, hunting has been lawful from time immemorial in Alegria.”
“Which is barbaric and should not exist,” the fox said quickly, trying to regain control.
“But nevertheless exists, whether we like it or not,” the stag said looking around at the assembled creatures. Some were bowing their heads and all were silent.
“If we murder these children just to satisfy our blood lust over their crime then we become worse then they are. Worse I say, because their actions were innocent. Ours would be premeditated and wholly unforgivable.”
The stag looked around and every animal in the crowd was now looking at the floor, even the weeping rabbits.
After a long silence the fox said in a strangled voice. “So what do you suggest we do with them?”
Bue looked over at Jared in confusion.
“Banish them and trust that they tell their people what happened here today.”
There was another long silence and the fox said. “ Hekima you cannot just...”
“If any animal here believes now that they should be killed then let it make itself known BUT…let that animal take part in their murders if it is so eager to see life taken.”
The stag looked around the conclave and none would return his stare.
Eventually Hekima said. “I will take them with me to the border. Let it never be said that we did not treat others fairly and with compassion, regardless of what hurt they caused to us.”
The stag stared at the bears and they bent down to cut the bindings free from the boys’ hands and feet. Unsure what to do, Bue and Jared simply lay there, trying to rub some circulation back into their wrists.
“Come.” He said gently. “Don’t be afraid. Climb on my back. I will take you to where you came from.”
Hesitantly and glancing around the gathered, silent animals who stared at them, they gingerly climbed on the huge stag’s back and clung on. Bue had the lead and held to the fur on the back of the huge beast’s neck. Jared gripped Bue around the waist.
“Now hold tight,” the stag said and without hesitation leapt through the undergrowth and the tall grass and into the depths of the wood.
After a short time they came to where they had shot the rabbit. The stag stopped and lowered itself so the boys could get down.
“Thank you,” Jared said. The stag looked at him with its sad, old eyes and after contemplating him for a moment it replied.
“Don’t come back here. Do you understand? If you do you won’t leave alive.”
“We understand,” Jared said quickly. “We’re sorry about that rabbit…”
Hekima interrupted him. “Your words are meaningless. What’s done is done. Learn that not everything is the same wherever you are.”
In the distance they could see the fire of the camp, maybe one mile distant.
“Farewell children,” the stag said and turned and bolted into the woods, never looking back.
Jared watched the plants and leaves wave in its wake and then whirled as he heard Bue squawk triumphantly and pick up his precious bow from the undergrowth.
“Found it,” he exclaimed. “Come on, let’s go.” He looked at Jared grinning, patting his jerkin pocket to show he still had his quarrels.
Moving together they made their way back to camp.
They sat or lay around the fire. Leppard had listened carefully to what Bue and Jared had said and then told them not to tell the others. His concern was clear and despite his initial anger that they had been gone so long, he softened when he realised why.
“The lands beyond our borders are unusual sometimes,” he noted gravely and they had made do for supper with what little they had brought with them. Plus some mushrooms that Challandra had found near the old path.
The fire was warming and Bue sat with his knees drawn up to his chin and looked across at Jared. “Something we don’t know is exactly why you’re here. Where do you come from?”
Everybody turned to look at Jared who shifted uncomfortably, the orange glow from the fire casting shadows across his face. After a pause he looked at them. “To be honest I don’t know where YOU come from.”
There was more silence and he realised he would have to continue.
“I’m from Warwick in England. I was in hospital visiting my cousin a week ago when I disturbed some kind of blind, scruffy guy who was trying to hurt a girl named Sophie who’s in a coma. Mordalayn came and stopped him and then threw a bracelet onto me that I couldn’t take off.”
He paused and saw that the group were listening intently to what he said. “Then when me and my parents were about to fly to Malta for our holidays these creatures attacked me. Mordalayn appeared and stopped them, I think he killed them but then he took me and the next thing I knew I was here. One minute I’m on the runway of Heathrow airport and then the next I’m face down on a muddy farm field God knows where.”
“What’s an airport?” one of the boys whispered but he was shushed by another.
“Why would Takoba Mordalayn bring you here though?” Bue asked puzzled. “Your land is obviously far from here…wherever err, Warrik is.”
“I don’t know, he said something about people wanting to hurt me and Sophie.”
“Who’s Sophie?” Bolla asked and a few others murmured their curiosity.
“Mordalayn said she’s the ruler here, he called her Our Lady.”
There was a gasp of shock from everyone, including Leppard.
“Sophie is the Queen of Alegria?!!” Bue said,
“I, I guess so.” Jared replied.
Bue whistled and there was excited murmuring amongst the others. He turned to Jared once more. “What happened to her?”
“She was hit by a car.” Jared saw the confused looks and tried again. “A road vehicle.” There were nods of understanding. “She’s been unconscious for about three months now.”
Leppard then interjected. “The light of this kingdom has slowly faded in the last year. We wondered why such a great loss of power had befallen Alegria. Most believed the queen had gone and deserted us, but now you tell us that she is hurt. That explains it.”
There was a silence and Jared asked;” Has she always been the queen here?”
Leppard laughed. “No my boy. Not by a long shot. She is the second ruler of Alegria in my lifetime.”
“But, how…what do…how does she get to be queen here?”
“That I cannot tell you because I do not know. There are many secrets in this world.”
There was a long silence and then one of the other boys spoke up. “We’ve heard stories about Anghofio. That King James wants to invade us. Is that true?”
Leppard looked around and said, “We believe so yes,” and there were shocked murmurs in response. “But I am not privy to the knowledge any more. My days as a soldier are over.”
“Did you fight alongside Takoba Mordalayn?” Declain asked excitedly.
“I had that honour yes,” Leppard replied smiling.
“Cor! What’s he like?”
The others started firing questions at the old bow master.
“Yeah, why’d he leave to be the Queen’s Sword?”
“Is he scary in battle?”
“Did you see him kill anyone?”
Leppard smiled and when the excited buzz had died down he replied. “Takoba Mordalayn was a general in the Enlightened Army. I had the privilege of serving alongside him. Our army has not seen battle in hundreds of years but I have seen him fight.”
He paused. “The only threat to Alegria now is our own sense of safety. Our army is small and we have little or no real ability to stand our ground in the face of a direct attack. Our queen is powerful but now she is gone…well, the future is uncertain.”